Pez mania

What inspired the founders of Ebay? What's the focus of a thriving community, online and off? Little candy dispensers.

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Avid collectors of all sorts of items — from antique cuckoo clocks to Roman coins — have always formed communities of like mind and gathered periodically in person to trade and schmooze. But the Internet has kicked this process into overdrive.

Need evidence? Just ponder the Pezheads. Pez-dispenser devotees have not only built communities online — their obsession has inspired the founding of billion-dollar companies, and even brought couples together.

Mary Thronson and Brian Gochal are two Pez devotees who recently attended a Pez collectors convention in Los Angeles. Initially, they were embarrassed to talk about how their romance began over the “Pezheads” e-mail list and then hit full bloom when they met at another Pez convention in 1996. But the blush on their faces vanished once they asked me if I wanted to check out their tattoos. On Gochal’s leg stretched a four-inch design of a “Mr. Ugly” Pez, its wrinkly green face resting on a lighter-shaped neck; Thronson’s calf featured a brown-faced “Bullwinkle” head with a yellow dispenser.

Thronson, 28, is a substance abuse counselor in South Dakota and has collected Pez dispensers for several years. Gochal, 33, a computer salesman living in Mountain View, Calif., will soon head east to move in with his fiancie. In a town of 2,000 residents and scant demand for computer salespeople, Gochal plans to turn their 800-plus Pez collection (plus untrademarked Pez boxers, Pez watches and more) into a home-based business. “Thanks to the Net and eBay, I think I could bring in at least $2,000 a month,” he said — a sum that goes a lot further in South Dakota than in the Bay Area.

The one-day Pez-a-thon show in Los Angeles, open to the public for $5 a pop, drew some 1,200 people in late March. The crowd ranged in age from kids who could barely see over the tables of Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and zillions of other dispensers to hunched-over elderly folks holding their grandchildren’s hands. Dealers came from all over the world, including Austria, the world headquarters of privately held Pez.

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Many of the dealers, who have known each other for years from the Pezheads list, rented rooms a couple nights before the public trade show to network and try to snatch “wholesale” deals on the hottest items — an 18-piece “Make-a-Face” dispenser, ` la Mr. Potato Head, selling for $3,000, for example, or an extremely rare 1980 set of three French cartoon characters (Asterix, Obelix and Miraculix) for $8,000.

Many visitors came to check out the latest or rarest of these time-honored plastic novelties, whose hinged lids release candies from the dispenser’s neck. But these days, the bulk of Pez trading occurs on the Internet. And by far the hottest hub for trading Pez items is eBay — which, keen on keeping its flock loyal (particularly as e-commerce behemoth Amazon.com enters the online auction battlefield), sponsored the Pez-a-thon.

Pierre Omidyar, the 31-year-old founder and chairman of the San Jose company, paid tribute to a ballroom full of Pezheads during a kickoff reception at the show. He recanted the now-legendary tale of how, back in 1995, his girlfriend (now wife) Pam, a Pez collector, longed for a way to easily find more dispensers. Omidyar had been wanting to create an efficient marketplace on the Web for person-to-person commerce. Thus came the epiphany: an online auction house where people could list Pez, Barbies and eventually thousands of other items.

So what possesses people to pay up to thousands of dollars for plastic candy dispensers that once sold for 29 cents (years ago) to little more than a dollar (today)? Clearly, it’s not the grape, lemon and orange nugget-shaped candies themselves. For baby boomers and beyond, the Mickey Mouse, Goofy and other Pezheads conjure up a simpler, cleaner, more free-spirited time before pagers, cell phones and PalmPilots. Ironically, many collectors are self-described computer geeks who started collecting dispensers through e-mail lists years ago.

Take Cliff Lee, a network engineer with a firm in Katy, Texas: “For me, it’s about a quest for the zany, the lighthearted. I like that in life,” he said. Lee also owns a “traveling collection” of some 1,400 dispensers glued to a 1977 Dodge Aspen — which he brings out for town parades and, of course, Pez gatherings. Until recently, he managed the Pezheads list, which boasts around 500 members. He insists he collects dispensers strictly as a hobby. “I don’t try to make money. I just can’t let them go,” he said.

Another die-hard Pezhead is “Jolly” Jim Presnal, who produced the Los Angeles convention. A software developer, Presnal said he started collecting Pez several years ago, thinking they were “a cute and kitschy toy.” Then he found community. “We’ve created a safe, G-rated community, a place for families,” he said, referring to the e-mail list as well as the actual Pez gatherings.

There are roughly 400 unique dispenser heads, with thousands of variations, according to Presnal. The name Pez comes from the first, middle and last letters of pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint. A closely (many say secretively) held Austrian company created the candy in 1927 as a breath mint for smokers: The spring-loaded dispensers, headless at first, were made to look like cigarette lighters. Toy character heads were added to the dispensers and fruit flavorings to the candies in 1952, after the candy was introduced in the United States.

As for wedding-bound Gochal and Thronson, they take their Pez so seriously that they’re working their collections into an informal prenuptial agreement. “She gets it all,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “I agreed to that knowing one thing: that I will never give her a divorce … Pez will keep us together.”

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